Even when on a losing streak, poker enriches your vocabulary


SHAGGY DOGS:TO CALL a person's bluff is to test their claims and issue a challenge for them to reveal the truth.

Poker, from which the phrase derives, is essentially a game of deception where each player pretends to have the winning hand and the others have to consider the truth of that assertion against the value of the cards in their own hand.

Once play begins, the chips (money tokens) are placed on the table and then the chips are down (things are getting serious). The expression poker-faced, meaning to reveal no outward emotion, comes from this part of the game. Some players, suspecting others have a superior hand by the way they are upping the stakes (putting more chips on the table) may pass their cards back to the dealer, face down, so the others won't know how they have been betting. This is known as "folding the cards" and a player who does this has folded, as a business might these days when it ceases to trade.

However, at any point players can pay more money in to the "pot" (hence gone to pot) and call another person's bluff by paying them to reveal their cards (put their cards on the table).

Finally, if something is very likely to happen, and can be foreseen, it might be thought of as being on the cards. But this expression has nothing to do with poker; instead it relates to the practice of fortune-telling and reading tarot cards. The phrase has been in regular use from the early 1800s in England and across Europe since the practice originated in Italy sometime between 1440 and 1450.

THE STREETS are paved with gold is an indication that a particular town or city is full of opportunity and well worth a visit. George Colman the Younger wrote, in The Heir-at-Law(1797): "Oh, London is a fine town, a very famous city, where all the streets are paved with gold, and all the maidens pretty." (Having now researched this claim extensively over the last 20 years, I can assure the reader that the younger George is only half right.) But Colman did not coin the expression, which can be found in a popular legend that tells the story of Dick Whittington, who as a 13-year-old boy packed his worldly goods into his handkerchief, tied it on the end of a stick and made his way from Gloucestershire to London after hearing the pavements there were made of gold and silver.

There is no record of the story being told from 1605 but there was a real Dick Whittington who was born in the village of Pauntly in Gloucestershire and who was actually lord mayor of London four times between the late 1300s and early 1400s. He was also 13 when he left home. There is a suggestion that the expression began to be used after the Goldsmiths' Company merged with the Paviours' Company and hence the connection.

However, going back even further in time, we have yet another reference, and probably the original one. The Book of Revelation(21.21) insists that the streets of heaven are paved with gold - "the streets of the city were pure gold".

• Extracted from Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep by Albert Jack (Penguin Books)